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The chapel at Laurel House was invariably cold, and even though the calendar told her it was the first day of August, the young governess sitting with her charges was thankful she had chosen to wear her old-fashioned stuff gown with its long sleeves. The family employed no resident chaplain, and Mr Seymor read a long and, thought Miss Hetton, very apt passage from the Bible concerning the trials of Job, followed by the customary prayers, during which the children shuffled and squirmed uncomfortably, eager to return to the nursery-wing where breakfast awaited them.
At last their ordeal was over. Mr and Mrs Seymor made their stately way out of the chapel, followed by Miss Hetton. The young lady would have preferred to take breakfast with her charges in the relaxed atmosphere of the nursery, but it was Mrs Seymor's firm belief that a mother should take a keen interest in her offspring's education. To this end she insisted that the young governess should attend her at breakfast every morning in order that she might be informed of her children's progress and issue any new directives that occurred to her. Having thus performed her duty, the good lady then banished her children from her mind until they were brought down to the drawing-room to enjoy half an hour of their parents' time before retiring to bed.
That particular morning, Miss Hetton discovered that her employer was in a highly critical mood. After routine enquiries into the children's education, she launched her attack.
"Thomas and Sebastion were very restless during prayers today," she began, applying butter to a piece of bread with mathematical precision. "You do not seem to have them properly under yourcontrol."
"I will see to it that they behave better tomorrow, ma'am."
"I do not believe you are severe enough with them, or any of the children. I have more than once heard Matilda address you in a most unseemly way."
"I encourage them to look upon me as a friend as well as a teacher."
Mrs Seymor looked at her in surprise.
"My dear young woman you cannot know what you are saying. A governess can never be a friend to her charges. Why, it is a sure way to disaster. You allow them too much freedom, with the result that before long they will pay you no heed at all! I cannot condone it. Mr Seymor, pray tell Miss Hetton that such dangerous ideas must not be practised in this house."
The master of the house looked up from his news-sheet.
"Eh, what's that? Oh, quite, m'dear. Not to be thought of," he said, burying himself once more in his paper.
Realizing that argument would be futile, Miss Hetton wisely remained silent.
"Of course you are very young," conceded Mrs Seymor, "but you have been with us for nearly two years, now, and should be well acquainted with the manner of things here. Another thing, Josephine has developed a perpetual sniff. It must be stopped at once."
"She has been suffering from a cold recently, ma'am, but I shall of course attend to it."
"And you will make it plain to them, Miss Hetton, that I will not tolerate giggling during prayers."
Miss Hetton was aware that the stifled laugh had come not from her charges but from the young maids in the servants' benches, but she had no wish to expose them to their mistress's wrath and she let the matter rest.
A footman entered with the morning's mail upon a silver tray, which he held out to his master. Mr Seymor reluctantly abandoned his paper and sorted through the letters.
"What's this?" He held up a letter, his brows raised in surprise. "A letter for you, Miss Hetton."
"Now who in the world can be writing to you?" asked Mrs Seymor heavily. "You received a letter from your mama less than a month ago, did you not? You might as well open it now, my dear. If it is bad news you will want to let us know soon enough."
Miss Hetton would have liked to take her letter to the privacy of her own room, but she recognized a command in the lady's words and silently opened the sheet.
"It is from Miss Clove, at the seminary," she said, frowning over the neat copperplate handwriting. "She wishes me to visit her next week, the eighth. She writes that it is most important."
Mrs Seymor's brows drew together.
"That is a Thursday. When you joined us it was agreed that you would have every Tuesday afternoon to yourself."
"Would it, perhaps, be possible to change?" suggested Miss Hetton hesitantly.
The older lady's hard grey eyes snapped with disapproval.
"It is very inconvenient at such short notice."
"Oh, let us not be too hasty, my dear," put in her husband mildly. "You will recall that your sister has taken up her annual residence in Cheltenham and we are to go there next week to visit her for a few days. There can be not the least inconvenience to us and I am sure Miss Hetton can make some suitable arrangement for the children. After all, she will only be going to Bath, which is less than five miles from here."
His wife rose.
"Very well, if you see no problem, Mr Seymor, there is nothing more to be said," she declared.
Upon this majestic utterance the lady withdrew. Her husband prepared to follow her, gathering up his paper and letters from the breakfast table.
"You must not mind her too much," he remarked to Miss Hetton, smiling kindly upon her. "The running of this house is a great responsibility and it sometimes makes my dear lady a little short-tempered."
Miss Hetton flushed: "I assure you, sir, Mrs Seymor has given me no reason to think ill of her. I am very grateful to both of you for employing me, I am well aware that with no experience, finding a position as governess would not have been easy, had you decided against me."
"You came with the very highest references, Miss Hetton, and you have not let us down. You may be sure my wife and I appreciate the excellent service you have given us." He rose. "I will arrange for the chaise to be at your disposal on Thursday next, my dear."
With a friendly smile he gathered up his papers and left the room Caroline remained behind, glad of an opportunity to re-read her letter.
Miss Clove's Academy for Young Ladies had been in existence for almost two decades, and it was generally considered to be the best seminary in Bath. Its owner, an indomitable little woman of deceptively frail appearance, attributed no small part of her success to the personal, almost maternal interest she took in each of her charges, but none of them had won her affection more than the young lady taking tea with her that Thursday in her pleasant sitting-room, overlooking the gardens of Queen Square.
"I do hope you did not object to my arranging matters in such a managing way," remarked Miss Clove, looking anxiously at her guest. "With time so short it seemed the wisest course to ask you to come here today."
"Not in the least, dear ma'am. I can only be grateful to you for your continued interest in me. Yet I confess it was the urgent tone of your letter that brought me here. I certainly did not understand its content."
Miss Clove glanced up at the fine ormolu clock on the mantelpiece and folded her hands in her lap.
"We still have a little time," she said. "I will try to explain. Some weeks ago, I received a communication from a Major Lagallan. He was trying to contact you and asked if I could give him your direction. Of course I immediately replied that I could not divulge such information to a stranger."
"No indeed," replied Miss Hetton, feeling that some comment was required of her. "It is not to be expected that you should. I wonder that he should write to you at all."
"But that is the least of it," declared Miss Clove, sitting forward in her chair. "It seemed that no sooner had I sent off my reply than the gentleman called here in person. He told me he had expressed himself very ill in his letter, that his business with you could only be to your advantage and if I would but arrange a meeting I should be doing you a signal service." She adjusted her spectacles, a delicate flush upon her faded cheek. "He was altogether a most personable gentleman, Caroline, and such charming manners: when he asked for my assistance--in a most respectful way--I knew not how to refuse him!"
Miss Hetton allowed herself a tiny smile.
"Taken in by his winning ways, ma'am?"
"By no means! Though I will not say that his countenance is unattractive," returned the other lady, incurably honest. "It was the thought that I might be helping you that persuaded me to lend him my aid."
"Thus you wrote to me, requesting that I call upon you today."
"Yes. Major Lagallan informed me that he would be here by eleven o'clock to explain everything to you."
"How very mysterious," replied Miss Hetton, frowning. "I remember there was a Lagallan family at Sandburrows, but why should this gentleman wish to trace me after all this time? It must be all of ten years since we moved from there."
"It wants but a few minutes to the hour," returned Miss Clove, "You will soon be able to ask him."
Even as the ornately gilded clock struck eleven, there were sounds of an arrival: voices could be heard on the stairs, and seconds later a gentleman was ushered into the room by a wooden-faced servant. Caroline silently applauded his punctuality, and she studied the newcomer as he made his bow to his hostess. He was well above average height, and wore his fair, curling hair unpowdered. His dark green coat was sober enough, but fitted so admirably that Miss Hetton guessed it came from no provincial tailor. Nankin knee-breeches encased his shapely legs, and as he turned towards her, Caroline found herself looking into a pair of surprisingly gentle hazel eyes.
Having performed the introduction, Miss Clove moved towards the door.
"If you have no objection, there are some matters requiring my attention." She added, with a meaningful look at Caroline, "I shall be in my office next door, should you need me."
The major opened the door for the Miss Clove, remarking as he closed it behind her:
"A lady of the most excellent understanding. It is very good of her to allow me to speak to you alone."
Caroline did her best to appear composed.
"Will you not be seated, Major, and tell me what it is you want of me?"
He took a seat and studied her for a long moment before replying. His look was not admiring, and in all honesty she could not blame him: Caroline knew the picture she presented could not be called an attractive one. She was wearing a plain grey gown, its austerity unrelieved by any touch of decoration and her hair, an unremarkable brown, was brushed smooth and dressed close to her head. Her appearance was more necessity than choice: mothers of hopeful young families did not look favourably upon pretty young servants. Caroline did not flinch from his thoughtful gaze.
"I am not what you expected, Major?"
"On the contrary, Miss Hetton. You are every bit as I expected."
A rueful smile touched her lips. "A typical governess! Since it has always been my intention to appear as such, I should be gratified to learn that I have achieved that result. However, I am contrary enough to wish it was not so. But I waste your time, sir. How can I assist you?"
"You are the daughter of Joseph Hetton, late owner of Rhyne House, near the village of Sandburrows?"
"Perhaps you recall that my family owns the adjoining estate."
"I do remember something of the kind. Mama was upon good terms with Mrs Lagallan, and there was a son, I believe, a year or so younger than myself. But I cannot in truth say that I know you, Major. Are you a relation of the family?"
"I am the present owner of the Lagallan estate. I was at school from an early age, and from Oxford I went into the army, so my visits to the area were infrequent. The boy you remember is my half-brother, Vivyan."
Miss Hetton shook her head, frowning slightly.
"I was still a child when my father sold Rhyne House. My memories are a little faded."
Major Lagallan rose from his chair and walked over to the fireplace, where an empty grate was hidden by a canvas fire-screen, embroidered by some past student at the Academy.
"The lady you knew as Mrs Lagallan was my father's second wife, my step-mother. Her health declined rapidly after the demise of my father some two years ago. In fact she did not last more than a year without him. His estates passed to me, but my step-mother's jointure was secured to her own offspring--that is, to Vivyan. It was left in trust for him until he is five-and-twenty, or until his marriage, whichever is the sooner." He turned to look directly at her. "That is why I have sought you out, Miss Hetton. I want to know if you would be prepared to marry my brother."
For an instant, Caroline thought she had misheard him.
"Is--is this some kind of jest?" she said at last.
"Not at all. My brother is impatient to have the use of his estates, and for this he needs a suitable wife."
"But surely he is capable of choosing his own bride ... unless he has some defect?" She watched him closely, but her words did not shake his composure. Instead he smiled slightly.
"My brother, Miss Hetton, could choose from any number of ladies, without a doubt, but the key word here is 'suitable'. When my step-mama drew up her will, she was well aware of Vivyan's volatile character, and she thought that by making his inheritance subject to these conditions, she could prevent him from throwing away his fortune. She appointed two trustees, myself and her only brother, Jonas Ashby, who has use of the Shropshire property at present. He is in no hurry to remove from his comfortable living, and will oppose every bride that Vivyan puts forward."
Miss Hetton raised her brows a little.
"And what makes you think that I would be more successful than any other young woman?"
"Your name appears in the will. You are incredulous, Miss Hetton? It is true, nonetheless. If you wish for proof, I can arrange for you to see the document."
As he spoke she jumped up and took a hasty turn about the room, her hands twisting together as she went.
"But I cannot credit it! I could have been little more than ten years old when she last saw me."
"As you have already said, your Mama was on very good terms with Mrs Lagallan, and although your family moved away so long ago, my step-mama retained fond memories of you. She was gravely ill when the will was drawn up; she knew she would not live much longer. She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Hetton or another such lady, deemed suitable by both trustees."
"Forgive me for saying so," she said, her voice not quite steady, "but one would suspect Mrs Lagallan could not have been in her right senses when she wrote that. To put such trust in a girl she had not seen for years, it is incredible."
"I understand how you feel, Miss Hetton. It is irregular, I agree, but it is binding, nevertheless."
"Yet it can only be a few more years before your brother reaches five-and-twenty. Can he not be patient a little longer?"
"Vivyan is a very impetuous young man. He is also very spirited. I fear that if he is forced to remain at Lagallan House kicking his heels as my pensioner for the next five years he may seek some--unacceptable--outlet for his energies, in which case I fear he will not live to see five-and-twenty."
Her clear grey eyes met his direct gaze without flinching.
"You offer me a charming bridegroom, Major."
"What I offer you, Miss Hetton, is an opportunity to spend the rest of your life in comfort. For all his wildness, my brother knows what is due to his wife. You would be treated with kindness and respect, and be the mistress of substantial properties in Hertfordshire and Shropshire." He paused, regarding her with a faint smile. "I am not asking you to give me your decision this instant. If you are agreeable, I should like you to come to Lagallan House, let us say for one month. You will become acquainted with my half-brother, and if you should decide that you do not wish to marry him, a word to me will suffice. You shall be escorted back to Bath as soon as you desire it."
Caroline stood by the window, motionless, staring unseeingly through the glass. For a full minute after the major had finished speaking she remained there, but at last she returned to her chair and sank down, folding her hands in her lap.
"I would be very foolish not to consider your offer, sir," she began calmly. "My present situation is an unenviable one: to spend one's life at the beck and call of others, and at the end of it to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save--I admit it is a spectre that haunts me."
"Very well, then," he replied briskly. "I am returning to Lagallan House tomorrow morning. I shall call here to collect you at noon. Your luggage can follow on when--"
"One moment sir! I fear you go too fast for me," she interrupted him, a note of hauteur creeping into her voice. "However unpleasant my occupation, I have a duty to my present employer. I cannot pack my bags and walk out in an instant."
He regarded her impatiently.
"Very well. When would you be free to travel?"
Miss Hetton bristled at his autocratic manner. She pretended to consider the matter.
"I believe I shall be able to leave Bath at the end of the month."
She thought he did not look very pleased at this, but he merely bowed his head.
"As you wish. Perhaps Miss Clove will allow my carriage to collect you from here on the twenty-eighth."